By Galen Laserson
Visitors returning from emerging markets commonly remark on two problems that plague developing cities: traffic and trash. Admittedly, visitors likely purchase bottled water and do not stay long enough to have to navigate power outages or a local transit system. More viscerally, traffic and trash are both highly visible and unpleasantly familiar enough that there is nothing “charming” or “local” about experiencing them and nothing particularly exciting about fixing them. Saravana’s post (“Roads – Simple, Mundane and Absolutely Vital”) teases out the significance of roads to economic development in West Africa, a concept we have added to in our class discussions about how to capture the lost productivity resulting from traffic. Accordingly, I would like to leave traffic aside for the moment and focus on trash.
At its core, trash is waste – the enemy of sustainability.
Trash breeds illness and disease and, left alone, begets more trash. Developed countries have introduced plastic but no corresponding solution for how to remove it. In Ghana, waste from plastic packaging amounts to over 22,000 tons per year, enough to support Trashy Bags, an NGO that makes handbags entirely of trash. Accra has 16 trash collection zones serviced by private contractors. 20% of the population pays to receive weekly trash collection in high-income, low-density neighborhoods. These waste management companies are supposed to empty central collection containers for the remaining 80% of the population, however, these collections are less profitable and service is unreliable. Pay-as-you dump initiatives have resulted in residents dumping trash in illegal sites.
Accra, Ghana, January 2012 (photos by author)
Rwanda is far poorer than Ghana, though you wouldn’t guess it from the streets of Kigali. The Government of Rwanda’s approach to trash is to create less of it. The country has banned the use of plastic bags. In addition, on the last Saturday morning of every month, all citizens participate in community service (umuganda), which includes cleaning streets.
Kigali, Rwanda, July 2012
Easy enough, one might argue, in a country with a strong centralized government and a population of 10 million (similar arguments have been made about Singapore’s cleanliness). The culture of umuganda may not be replicable in, say, the U.S. In the era of FEED bags, Whole Foods, and composting (see Clementine’s post), however, banning plastic bags doesn’t seem like such a stretch.
Ghana reminds us that sustainable cities need proper incentives and systems for processing trash, Rwanda that we need to figure out ways to create less of it. It is Phu My Hung that offers a ray of optimism: “People come here from the city and they behave differently,” says Gayle Tsien, “They would think twice before throwing garbage on the ground.” As trash begets trash, so does cleanliness.
 In some instances, developed countries even export their own e-waste (computers, radios) to dumping grounds in Ghana.
3 Ian A. Thompson, “Domestic Waste Management Strategies in Accra, Ghana and Other Urban Cities
in Tropical Developing Nations.” http://www.cwru.edu/med/epidbio/mphp439/Waste_Mgmt_Accra.pdf
4 Ghana’s estimated per capita PPP GDP ($3,300) for 2012 is 2.4x that of Rwanda ($1,400). https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2004rank.html